Words & Images by: Jake Krolick
O'Death :: 04.03.08 :: Johnny Brenda's :: Philadelphia, PA
Punk has always had a rebellious spirit. Over the past decade, its firm anti-establishment stance has carried punk's soul to a variety of music. When you think about bluegrass, Americana and punk the similarities start to fall into place. Without delving too deep, each style can encompass fast, energetic music, typically with short songs and stripped-down instrumentation. Granted, there is much more to these genres, but for every green Mohawk shaking in the pit there is a raucous backwoods foot stomp set off by a McCoury, Grisman or Rice that can match weight any day. In the same vein, punk's own inner feelings have been known to beautifully erupt in ballads from the Patti Smiths or Joe Strummers of the world. Enter O'Death, a group from New York City who has successfully safety pinned punk's zeitgeist to Americana and bluegrass.
This ragtag group slaughtered Philadelphia letting Sid Vicious' spirit thrash poetically out of their banjo picking, fiddle howls and shiver inducing vocals. This satisfying vision possessed the crowd in a way that would have amused hardened Ramones fans. Rewind to last week, if you needed an excuse to kick up your heels and shun death for another day then you worked your way down to Girard and Frankfort. There you found a hootenanny with Kiss Kiss, O'Death and Murder by Death. These three bands had just embarked on a multi-city tour that landed at Johnny Brenda's, a fine establishment in Fishtown known for celebrating punk's spirit in its many forms.
Kiss Kiss proved to be a worthy experience. The charged combination of Rebecca Schlappich's sobbing violin, Josh Benash's gossamer vocals and Sam Oatts' vivacious bass spilled gypsy ditties across the floor. They're a kindred spirit to Beirut or Devotchka, but with a little less gypsy and little more Kooks. They toasted the room with their atonal indie sideshow as they traipsed through "Machines" in a fine showing of wolfish dissonance. "The Cats In Your House" painted a scene straight out of those old black and white
Mickey Mouse cartoons. Schlappich's violin directed the band's movement just as an animated wind blows trees to the rhythm of the cartoon orchestra. The band swayed with each of her long passes of the bow with Benash's vocals creating a whining siren song backdrop.
O'Death :: 04.03
O'Death's members had been out in the audience all evening, mingling with their family and friends. The band spit more energy just walking onto stage than a bull caged in at a rodeo. The crimson-headed Gabe Darling struck first blood as he plucked the familiar, slow-turned, jack-in-the-box style "Down To Rest" on the ukulele. The intro was snagged in midair by guitarist Greg Jamie, whose haunting vocals wrapped their icy fingers of woe around the melody's neck. A shirtless, wild-eyed Jesse Newman (bass) stomped in a count as David Rogers-Berry and Bob Pycior broke the formalities with a crash of drums and a rip of the fiddle. It didn't take folks long to realize that this was way more than just oddly arranged bluegrass. O'Death's twisted slant on Americana and bluegrass was siphoned through a cornucopia of musical influences.
At first take, O'Death is a foot-stomping, barnburner of a good time. Their show is a place where you can shed your shirt and shake your neighbor. When you pull your head from the moonshine long enough to listen, you'll hear a heck of a lot. Jamie's vocals are truly unique, perpetually shifting from a sorrowful, hauntingly nostalgic trill to a rapid farmer's hog calling sooie. His tone came across as deeply old and Appalachian - twang filled but not truly country. Pair that harmonious control with lunatic energy from Rogers-Berry, Pycior and Newman, who more resembled Glenn Danzig than Bill Monroe, and you get a feel for what this band can do. Their abilities produced dynamic, all-encompassing peaks and valleys that were gorgeously amplified by their pagan stage presence. O'Death's abrasive style teetered on the edge of calm as their take of The Pixies' "Nimrod's Son" hit us squarely in the gut. They followed with a poignant starting "Only Daughter" that disintegrated into aggressive banjo led havoc.
Our semi-circle around the foot of the stage was draped in disco ball shimmers. We were churned into a fiery mass by the romp stomping clap-a-long "On An Aching Sea." There was little left to the imagination as the fiddle player stripped out of his shirt. Pycior was shaggy haired, swayed by a mix of alcohol and intensity, not unlike his bothers on stage. His two-ton fiddle strokes best complemented the beat of the drum. This was no small feat as Berry's stick speed and powerful hits approached that of a nebular meltdown. Pycior's fiddle barked, piercing cries part Psycho soundtrack and part Jaws theme music, as he pulled the horse-haired bow across the strings. Torn wisps of horsehair dangled from the ends of the bow, reflecting the tattered remains of the songs before. The front edge of the stage displayed a nice offering of empty bottles as a testament to the crowds' parching boogie.
O'Death :: 04.03 :: Philadelphia
They continued to flick and fiddle with our music-affected membrane until we had washed our sins away twice over in sweat and blood. We were granted one breath during the entire hour-long performance, a less-than-gentle waltz that was really more of a gulp of air and not quite a full breath. The band stayed on stage with help from the audience's pleas, slaying the remnants of the house with an "Allie May Reynolds" encore. The full-tilt barnburner sent Darling and Berry skyward, flying from the tops of their seats in joy driven leaps. Our expanded congregation, grown with maiden fans since the set's beginning, now sung along with a devout vehemence. As Jamie's eyes spun one last time towards his brain, we were left with the notion that something devilishly divine had infatuated everyone in the venue.
Murder by Death would have faired better playing before O'Death. They actually gave a decent show with Sarah Balliet pulling some remarkable notes from her cello. With eight years and a new album under their belts, they rolled out of the gates at a trot compared to the throttling O'Death had just given us. Headliner or not, Murder by Death just felt out of position. No pun intended, but they were simply murdered by O'Death.
O'Death - 4/3/08 - Johnny Brenda's - Philadelphia
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